A Protestant Consideration of Natural Law

November 1991By Glenn N. Schram

Glenn N. Schram, a Lutheran, taught political science at Marquette University, and now lives in Hammond, Indiana, and devotes all his time to research and writing in the area of political philosophy. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Politics, Comparative Politics, and other journals.

Natural law is in ill repute today among both Protestants and liberal Catholics. It is based on human reason, which Protestants consider too corrupt to produce valid rules of human behavior, and it has things to say about sexual and reproductive morality which liberal Catholics tend to reject. Though I am a Protestant, yet I believe in natural law.

Protestants typically reject natural law for being tainted by sin. Thus Reinhold Niebuhr speaks with specific reference to natural law, of "the perennial corruptions of interest and passion which are introduced into any historical definition of even the most ideal and abstract moral principles." The danger is particularly great, he says, "when the natural law defines not merely moral but also political principles."

Niebuhr's position is more extreme than that of the 16th-century Reformers. After all, the very Epistle to the Romans, on which they largely drew for their doctrine of justification by faith alone, contains the following language:
It is not by hearing the law, but by doing it, that men will be justified before God. When Gentiles who do not possess the law carry out its precepts by the light of nature, then, although they have no law, they are their own law, for they display the effect of the law inscribed on their hearts. Their conscience is called as witness, and their own thoughts argue the case on either side, against them or even for them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus. (2:13-16, NEB)

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